Long before we could fly, humans have always been fascinated with flight. At the turn of the 20th century, the Wright brothers made controlled fixed-wing flight a possibility. Over the following years, aircraft developed to be larger, better powered and more complicated. By 1914, the First World War had broken out and it was only a matter of time until someone discovered they could shoot guns and drop grenades from these very primitive flying machines. Naturally, this led to a chain of developments and progression whereby aircraft became more powerful, maneuverable and better armed – often with a machine gun or two. It was the birth of the fighter plane.
Up until the 1940s, machine gun armed fighter planes made significant improvements in aerodynamic designs and their speeds continually increased as piston engine development progressed. Since the end of World War Two, however, piston engines fell to the wayside as jet engines promised faster speeds. With these speeds came the need for new aerodynamics and wing designs. Of course, machine guns gave way to small rapid fire cannons and, more importantly, missile technology. Today, this has led to an array of impressive and very powerful jet fighters fielded by air forces around the world. Perhaps more importantly, we are witnessing the next big transition of aircraft technology as the fighter jet transitions from the fourth generation planes of the 1970s to the 1990s to the fifth generation fighters which are highlighted by their stealth features, advanced electronics and weaponry. While all this technology is very impressive it is also very expensive.
The following looks at 10 of the most expensive fighter jets in service today. Any military buffs will likely guess most of these but there are a few that may surprise you. Unsurprisingly the top of the list is dominated by the newest fifth generation fighters whose radar defeating technology does not come cheap. For those of you looking for the latest Chinese and Russian stealth fighters, you’ll be disappointed as those planes are still in the prototype stage and haven’t reached any active units yet. Who knows, in a year such a list may look quite different as new contenders enter the ring of the most expensive fighter jets around.
10 MiG-35 - $40 million
In the early 1980s, the then-Soviet Union unveiled the MiG-29 fighter which was meant to counter the newest American fighters being developed at the time. Over the following decades, the MiG-29 was steadily developed and upgraded. Within the last few years, the Russian air force has finalized testing and development of the latest MiG fighter, known as the MiG-35 Fulcrum-F. This particular aircraft looks similar to the older Mig-29 but looks can be deceiving.
The MiG-35 is different in three main areas – engines, sensors and electronics. The engines are advanced versions of the same units which power many newer MiG fighters with a significant difference being they are more powerful and have a reduced infrared signature to make detection harder. The new MiG’s radar is a powerful and advanced version which, coupled with a new infrared Optical Locator System (OLS), makes this fighter a potent hunter. The plane’s electronic systems use a universal data bus meaning customers of the Fulcrum-F can opt to use equipment from a range of suppliers and countries without fear of compatibility issues.
9 Su-30MKI – $56 million
The Sukhoi Su-30 is classified as a long-range, all-weather heavy fighter – and they do mean heavy. This plane empty weighs in at over 40,000lbs which is 16,000lbs more than the MiG-35. Don’t let this fool you, however. The Su-30 is extremely maneuverable and can often be seen performing high-g maneuvers at airshows. One such maneuver includes the ‘cobra’ which flips the speeding Su-30 completely vertical before tipping back over to continue forward.
The Su-30MKI is a specialized version for the Indian air force which is built in both Russia and India. It is powered by two massive turbofan engines which produce over 27,000lb of thrust each and can get the plane up to speeds of nearly Mach two. This particular model also has a range of electronics, avionics and sensors from Russia, France, Israel and South Africa. Its large size means it can carry a lot of weaponry which includes up to 10 air-to-air missiles or an array of rockets, cruise-missiles and bombs.
8 MiG-31 - $60 million
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union unveiled the MiG-25. Nicknamed the Foxbat, this plane was one of the fastest in the world and was built to intercept any supersonic American bombers and spy planes which were being developed at the time. Unfortunately, while the Foxbat was fast, it was also heavy and as maneuverable as a beached-whale. The answer was the MiG-31 Foxhound, introduced in the early 1980s.
The Foxhound shares many similarities with the MiG-25. Most importantly, the MiG-31 is fast and can achieve speeds of over Mach 2.8 making it one of the fastest planes in the world. At lower altitudes, the MiG-31 has improved performance over its predecessor. Weighing in at 48,000lbs empty, this interceptor is pretty big so it won’t be getting into any dogfights like the MiG-35 or Su-30. Nonetheless, the Foxhound’s massive radar allows it to track multiple targets at once and engage six enemy planes at the same time up to a reported range of 200km. Recent upgrades to this plane’s radar and avionics mean it’ll be in Russian service for at least a couple more decades.
7 Su-35 - $65 million
Like the Su-30, the Su-35 is a derivative of the Su-27 fighter. This new single-seat air superiority fighter shares many characteristics with previous Sukhoi fighters but implements a number of improvements to avionics, aerodynamics, range and engine power.
Similar the Su-30, the Su-35 is a large plane at just over 40,000lbs empty. However, the newer Sukhoi has a more aerodynamic airframe and is powered by two engines which produce nearly 32,000lbs of thrust each. This allows the Su-35 to reach a top speed of Mach 2.25. The pilot scans the sky with a powerful pulse-Doppler radar which allows this fighter to track multiple targets and engage up to six enemy planes at one time.
In an effort to bridge the gap between current fighter aircraft and the newer generation of stealth fighters, the Su-35 designers reduced the ability of radar to detect this plane head on by incorporating radar-absorbent materials into the design, especially around the engine inlets. This was augmented with a canopy which reportedly had enhanced radar deflecting ability.
6 F-18E/F Super Hornet - $65 million
In comparison with the previous Russian Sukhoi fighters, the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet is a relative lightweight at ‘only’ 32,000lbs. Based on the McDonald Douglas F-18 Hornet introduced in the 1980s, as you’d expect, the Super Hornet is bigger and improved in every area. To begin, the plane’s fuselage and wings are larger to accommodate more equipment and weaponry and future-proof the Super Hornet so it can take on newer systems as they are developed. The increase in size also allows for more fuel to be carried which means the new F-18 has around 35% greater range than its older counterpart. Its two engines put out 22,000lb of thrust and help the Super Hornet achieve a speed of Mach 1.8.
While it may not be a stealth fighter, the designers of the Super Hornet incorporated technologies to make the plane harder to detect and kill. This includes reducing the radar cross-section by incorporating designs and materials which absorb or scatter incoming radar waves. The fighter also uses one of the most proven and effective radar systems which can guide several missiles to their targets all at the same time.
5 JAS 39 Gripen - $69 million
The Swedish Gripen (Griffin) is similar to the Super Hornet in that it is meant to be a multi-role fighter. Built by Saab, the Griffen stands out from the previous entries on this list because it is a small fighter, weighing a mere 15,000lbs empty and powered by a single engine which puts out up to 18,000lbs of thrust.
The fighter uses a pulse-doppler radar which can detect and identify enemy planes at a maximum range of 120km. Like previous Swedish fighters, the Griffin is designed as a defensive weapon to protect from potential invasions. For this reason, the Griffen was designed for use on short runways (800m) and for ease of maintenance – a team of just a few personnel can reportedly re-arm and re-fuel this fighter in 10 minutes.
In all, the upfront cost of this fighter is more than compensated for by the fact that it is reliable and inexpensive to maintain. In addition to Sweden, the JAS 39 is used by several other countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Thailand.
4 Dassault Rafale - $94 million
The Rafale is a twin engine canard delta wing fighter which was built for the French Air Force and entered service in 2001. Much of the plane’s technology is domestically developed, including the radar and infrared tracking system.
The plane is built from a variety of materials which include aluminium, titanium, Kevlar and classified composites which are all reportedly used for strength and to reduce the plane’s radar signature. Like the other plane’s on this list, the Rafale does away with much of the old analog indicators and makes use of lcd displays and a head-mounted heads-up display.
In addition to a land-based variant, Dassault produces a naval version of the Rafale which is modified for carrier service. In terms of combat service, the Rafale has not faced off against other aerial opponents but it has been used in combat areas which include Afghanistan, Mali, Libya and Iraq.
3 Eurofighter Typhoon - $98 million
What happens when you bring together three of Europe’s biggest aircraft design and manufacturing companies? You get the Eurofighter Typhoon. Entering service in 2003, the Typhoon is the result of cooperation between BAE, Airbus and Alenia Aermacchi.
This fighter is similar to the French Rafale in that it uses the same twin engine canard delta-wing design. This particular fighter jet is known for its high maneuverability and agility, making it an excellent dog-fighter. This was demonstrated in 2007 when Typhoon participated in exercises with the Indian air force’s SU-30MKI. While the Sukhoi had admittedly better maneuverability, the Eurofighter came out on top in a dogfight.
Like many other aircraft on this list, the Typhoon is not a stealth fighter but is designed with some stealthy features. The wings are highly swept, weapons are stored semi-recessed and the engines are shrouded, all in an effort to reduce the radar reflection off of the plane. The plane can carry an array of different weapons. It is one of the few fighter jets on this list that has seen active combat thanks to participation in Libya in 2011.
2 F-35 Lightning II - $116 million*
This latest fifth generation stealth fighter has just started being delivered to units for training and testing. If you’ve followed any sort of news feeds over the last few years you know the F-35 has been a lightning rod for criticism and debate. In large part this is because the fighter’s development and build costs have ballooned massively and delays in delivery have increased.
The asterisk on the price is there because everyone involved with this fighter has a different estimate of the plane’s price - $116 million per unit falls nicely in the middle. These concerns have been augmented with a wave of criticism concerning the plane’s abilities and the point that by trying to be good at everything, the Lightning II ends up not being good at anything.
Nonetheless, the F-35 has potential should all the bugs get worked out. The plane is stealthy thanks to its advanced design and materials used. Weapons are carried internally to reduce radar signature and the plane’s own radar is multi-functional, allowing for air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Its single engine can produce 43,000lbs of thrust and propel it to at least Mach 1.6.
1 F-22 Raptor - $150 million
At top spot on our list is the first true fifth generation fighter to enter service in the world, the Lockheed Martin F-22. This single seat, twin-engine all-weather fighter entered service in 2005 and has set the bar to which countries like Russia and China have been trying to achieve. While much of the F-22’s systems and performance remain classified, it is reported that this plane’s two engines can produce more than 35,000lbs of thrust each, enabling the Raptor to achieve speeds in excess of Mach 2.2.
The Raptor’s radar can detect and track targets at around 200km and, depending upon the missiles being used, engage at ranges of up to 180km. Yet what makes the Raptor stand out (and expensive) is the design and materials used which help it to hide from most radar systems. In addition to airframe and wing designs, weapons are stored internally so as to not create any extra surface area for enemy radar waves to detect.
Ultimately, Raptor production was shut down after 195 were produced. Ironically, the halt in production was largely a result of the fact that no real enemies existed because Russian and Chinese stealth development lagged so far behind. The early production shutdown limited F-22 production and has led some analysts to argue that the actual unit cost of a Raptor is closer to $350 million.